Speed and skill are a given in the modern NHL, but those traits alone don’t anoint Stanley Cup champions. Beating the best in the world takes more than tape-to-tape passes and wicked slappers. The little things like short shifts, back checking, and never giving up on a free puck can make the difference when the skill gaps are marginal between great teams. EA Sports’ NHL 18 may not have the cutting-edge features and talents of its FIFA and Madden brethren, but this year’s edition starts doing a lot of the little things correctly, which results in a more competitive experience. 

Competition intensifies on the ice thanks to the new bag of tricks developer EA Canada gives to attackers and defenders. On the rush, puck carriers can unleash several new deke moves to gain separation and tickle the twine. Between-the-legs dekes, one-handed moves, and Datsyuk-esque puck flips are easy enough to learn but more difficult to pull off in fast-flying games. Defenders can neutralize these new threats thanks to the return of the defensive skill stick, which allows for better gap control and zone coverage to take away passing lanes and shut down overzealous stick handlers. Offline players should appreciate the savvier A.I., which is much better at making smart breakout passes, using dekes to gain free ice, and staying in a proper position. Legacy problems like missed puck pick-ups and being unable to make micro movements in small spaces on defense still frustrate, but overall the gameplay feels strong. 

At first glance, the headline Threes mode introduced in NHL 18 looks like a casual arcade experience, but in practice, EA wisely didn’t handicap its controls. With a smaller sheet of ice, fast play, and money pucks that can turn the tide of matches, users can show off all their sickest moves in these fast and furious 3v3 competitions. EA’s smart implementation of various ways to play with friends (any combination of offline couch play and online team-ups works) makes this a great destination mode for party pick-up games. Just don’t expect much from the more fleshed out Circuit experience. This grind against CHL, AHL, and NHL teams starts you with a roster of 60-rated players, and rather than reward you with fun-to-play NHL stars and legends at the peak of their powers, it instead doles out lesser-versions of modern players to pad out the journey. This robbed the Circuit of any fun for me, so I recommend sticking to the more entertaining exhibition/online match-ups. 

For years EA has largely neglected easy improvements to make its franchise mode stronger, but NHL 18 shows that the developers were indeed listening. Fan requests like mid-season contract extensions, better draft classes, and stretching player ratings to create a bigger skill gap between stars and fourth liners make this a vastly improved mode. Realizing a pending free agent had no interest in re-signing with my club before the trade deadline gave me the opportunity to get something of value in return instead of letting him walk for nothing. Draft class variety more realistically mimics the modern NHL; I even saw one class with six NHL-ready players who could jump right into the pros. Player progressions can stagnate or surge based on their circumstances, which makes free agency more interesting. More than once I was able to find a stalled prospect for cheap who eventually realized his full potential with my squad. All of these small but important changes reinvigorate the mode much more than the headline inclusion of expansion drafts. 

I’m glad EA chose to include expansion teams (both the incoming Las Vegas Golden Knights and a 32nd team of your creation), but the implementation leaves much to be desired. Including mechanics that allow you to squeeze out extra assets from teams for not picking particular players like Vegas GM George McPhee did would have been nice, and picking as the 32nd team from Vegas’ leftovers doesn’t hold many exciting options. I wish they followed the lead of NBA 2K and allowed you to introduce the 32nd expansion team in a season down the line instead. 

Speaking of lines, Hockey Ultimate Team offers new ways to improve yours via the introduction of solo challenges. The handful of options in HUT may not have the diversity or depth of the options on display in FIFA and Madden, but I’m nonetheless glad to have another way to grind for coins.

EASHL, Be A Pro, and Draft Champions modes all return mostly unchanged for better or worse. Even with the reintroduction of trade requests, the Be A Pro mode in particular feels outdated given the story-focused experiences in other sports titles. While EASHL introduces 3v3 options for those who can’t field a full lineup and want to avoid having A.I. on the ice, I still feel the mode would benefit greatly from a player progression system that served the needs of competitive balance while letting users customize skills in a meaningful way. 

NHL 18 may not win every scrum in the corner or go top shelf with every shot it takes, but it still shows enough grit and hustle to earn your respect. The new offensive and defensive tools are welcome additions on the ice, and the entertaining Threes mode could become a party staple for hockey fans.